One winter a student posted a status update on social media that went something like, “I hate that fat girl in the yoga pants.”
For two weeks, streams of girls came to me upset to be the target of harassment. Most of the girls didn’t know the ‘bully’ personally but were certain it related to their yoga pants. When I interviewed the one who wrote the comment, she revealed the target. It was a slam against her former best friend to hurt her, nothing to do with the many girls who cried themselves to sleep for weeks after it was posted. It broke my heart. 15 different girls had told me 15 different stories about self image and belonging.
I think of those yoga pants sometimes and I wonder about what else is going through the individual minds of young girls while they are alone on social media.
I also wonder how girls are affected by the #MeToo hashtag that’s going around. And then I think about the many girls in schools who have shared their stories with me over the years. I wonder what they are doing now. I wonder if they’ve found a way to heal, to take charge of a new narrative that builds them up rather than lingering in one that makes them feel torn down. I wonder about the subtext of #MeToo, the underlying emotional pulls, the accompanying memories, the what’s next…. As an adult, the subtext of #MeToo can be empowering, a symbol of solidarity and strength, or it could be an invitation to seek help. Does a teenage girl interpret it in these ways too? How does it affect her sense of belonging and self image?
And so over the past month I’ve thought a lot about many of the girls in the schools I’ve worked in over the years. I’ve remembered that the pain and scope can stretch far and wide. This isn’t a story about one girl, but about many girls over many years. It was important to me to write this post to show their courage and resilience, to use writing to reflect on the complexity of the situation for girls today. I want to remember how necessary it is to listen to their individual stories and how something essential could be missed if we don’t.
Warning: The content is sensitive and may be upsetting.
It’s a Tuesday morning. Ms. L shows up at my office door. She has that look, the look that tells me something big has happened, the look that says, Take a deep breath, Jessica.
“Kate came to see me this morning. She shared something. She wants to tell you too,” she says.
Then Ms. L lets it out fast, as if the speed will lessen the impact, make it all seem more manageable.
Kate comes into my office. She casts her eyes to the floor. The energy surrounding her looks contained like she’s struggling to hold it in, like a held breath in a bad-smelling room.
“What happened?” I ask.
Kate sighs—and then her story comes tumbling out with a burst of air. She talks about how she had a fight with her boyfriend. A bad fight. They threw things at each other. The apartment they shared in town was no longer safe. Things had been getting worse. Sean hit her. She yelled. And then “it” happened. She was raped. When she could escape, she ran to a friend’s house, stayed the night, decided to tell the us about it now, weeks later. “I haven’t been sleeping,” she said. “I’m still living at Sean’s. I think I should move. Maybe. It hasn’t happened again, so maybe it’s okay. He was so sorry.”
In this moment, Kate is so open, so trusting, so desperate for peace that her truth is raw. Kate and Ms. L and I cry together.
We call her mother. We ask her to come to the school immediately. Kate hadn’t seen her mother in a week.
Kate asks us to stay in the room with her when her mother arrives. When Kate tells her mother about the event, her mother falls to her knees and sobs. Kate stands and holds her mother’s head against her leg, soothing her. Then Kate’s mother reveals she had been in an abusive relationship too. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she says. Kate had grown up witnessing her mother’s struggles with love and domestic violence.
The women stand holding each other, crying. Then we all hug and cry together before Kate and her mother go to the police station.
Six months pass. Kate is living at home again. Sean misses her and regularly tries to win her back.
The police come to the school. Kate is in the hospital. Kate is 18 now. She asked the police to call the school instead of her mom. Kate had tried to take her own life.
A couple weeks later, Kate returns to school and we develop a plan with the help of a social worker. Kate identifies three caring adults at the school who she feels safe going to when she feels distressed. Kate says she wants to heal, to feel like herself, to reconnect to life. Somehow she remembers hope, she says. A tiny crack in her dark world lets in the light, expanding each time she trusts us with a story, an insight, a goal, a worry. The social worker and the teacher work with Kate to help her find safe housing, to help her rebuild her life again. Kate works so hard.
Kate has now graduated from high school and a college program. She works full time. She is engaged. She is excited to have a daughter of her own one day. She says that she didn’t start to feel safe until the police issued a restraining order preventing Sean from contacting her. Kate is still working things out with her mom, but every year it gets easier.
And I could share “Sean’s” story too. Sean is also one of my students. He has been in foster care since he was three. He has lived in 11 different homes. When he turned 16, his worker decided it would be easier for Sean to live in his own apartment than with a family. Sean struggles in school sometimes and has not made any connections with the staff. He started skipping classes in Grade 9 because he didn’t want his peers to know he couldn’t read. He steals things sometimes even though he has enough money for rent and groceries. It’s tough because there is no one to call when Sean is struggling. His worker’s office is 3 hours away. Who is raising Sean? Who is teaching him how to love?
Sean loves Kate. She is the only person he has ever felt love for in his whole life. He plans to marry Kate. It scares him when they fight. He is afraid of losing her.
Sean has an explosive temper at school sometimes. He bruised his fist punching the door when he was mad. When I talk to Sean about his temper he pulls his hoodie up around so it covers most of his face and says, “I don’t eff-ing care.”
Kate didn’t charge Sean at first. She told the police her story but decided not to press charges. She said she didn’t want all the drama. Sean dropped out of school when he turned 18 a few weeks later. He had 16/30 credits. Kate said, “he won’t be at school so I’ll be fine.”
When Kate was in the hospital, he tried to visit her. She found the strength to advocate for herself. Soon there was a restraining order in place.
As Kate put her own life back together, Sean’s life continued to fall apart. He lost everything. He got in some big trouble with the law and within 6 months was arrested and imprisoned. He still has no family.
Before I started listening closely to students I would have found this story too extreme, but every year I meet students with stories as complex as Sean’s and Kate’s. I hope all the “Kates” out there are reaching out to people they trust. I hope all the “Seans” out there have people who they can call family who will teach them how to love. Everyone has a right to feel safe.
And these are just two stories. Each time I see someone post the #MeToo to signal that they have been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual violence, I know there is an individual, complex story. The first step is sharing. Awareness. Then we need to plan…
In a school, our number one priority is that students feel safe. How can we do this better? How can we make our communities safer? Our world safer? How can we prevent harassment and violence? What do we need to teach our children and teens? How will school, home, and community work together for change?
“It takes a village…”
Thank-you to all the educators out there who provide a safe haven. Each school I’ve worked at over the years has had a team of caring adults who quietly help many “Kates” and “Seans” each week.
I wish I had more answers. For now I continue to work on listening…
* Confidentiality is important to me. Therefore, this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
It’s my second year teaching high school. I work in a big school with about two thousand students. In Grade 11 Advanced English we study Macbeth.
“Miss, do we really have to write another essay?” a lanky boy in the front row asks.
“What are you proposing? Do you have another idea?”
“We should make a play,” a girl suggests.
Another girl says, “We could invite other classes to watch!”
The students slouched in the back of the room adjust, leaning into the discussion.
“How would we begin?” I ask.
The students talk at once, shocked that the idea of substituting an essay is possible. The volume in the room grows.
“We’d have to decide how much of the play we want to do,” a girl says.
“And we could have jobs—”
“—I could do costumes!”
“I want to be a witch!”
“Everyone can do something backstage too.”
“We can turn our portable into a theatre—”
“What if I brought in lights my dad uses at Christmas for our stage?”
“—and I can bring in a cauldron.”
“Jo can make a head for the end!”
I stand by the board at the front of our portable, trying to capture their thoughts in chalk as they fire them out one after another. They brainstorm until the board is full.
“So does this mean we can do it?” a boy asks.
I pause for dramatic effect, squinting my eyes, squishing my lips up into a thinking face. “Hmmmm,” I say. “You make a really good case. I would love to support you on this—where does the writing fit?”
A girl stands up, talking and moving her arms. “I know! We can write a reflection on our characters or a reflection about what we learned.”
Working with teenagers I witnessed creativity every day. We staged Macbeth in our portable that semester. Students collaborated to make props, to paint large sheets of paper to use as a backdrop taped to our chalkboard. Students decided which scenes to include. From directing to acting to finding an audience for the work, the students engaged in every step of the creative process. We had some challenges with meeting deadlines, getting along, balancing different levels of enthusiasm for the project—but the students persevered. Our audience (another Grade 11 class) surprised us by showing up in Elizabethan-inspired costumes. We all learned a lot about how to bring an idea into being, about how to create.
Creativity is the swirling energy that starts with an idea and expands with each new connection, idea by idea, until the ideas land somewhere, turning into something to be shared. Creativity is about process, the ways of bringing an idea into being, the act of creating.
To begin take some time each day to capture ideas–as many as you can. And then when it feels right, try some of them on.
The Good News
This summer I spent a lot of time with my cousin who wrote a six-part blog series about collective impact that I followed in August. It got me thinking about how this type of intentional work within schools and within our broader school communities could better support students.
Promoting well-being is a focus in Ontario schools. It includes supporting the whole child: cognitive, emotional, social, and physical well-being. The most challenging area is mental health.
We have access to more experts and resources than in the history of schooling. We have processes in place to support students in crisis and ongoing training for all staff. There is a lot to celebrate. But I think everyone would agree that there is still more work to do. Our kids still need more.
Many adults in a school may be working independently or as a team to support one child. Each person has a different role to play. Imagine the jobs and skill sets of these people:
- Vice Principal
- Special Education Resource Teacher
- Classroom Teacher
- Guidance Counsellor
- Student Success Teacher
- Child and Youth Work
- Educational Assistant
- School Board Counsellor
- Student Retention Counsellors
- Board Interdisciplinary Team (including a Psychologist and Mental Health Nurse)
- Special Education Consultant
- Behaviour Specialist
- ….and we are part of a special Promoting Mentally Healthy Schools project.
In the community we have access to various services and supports:
- Kinark: Child and Family Services
- Rebound Child and Youth Services Northumberland
- Victim Services
- Highland Shores Children’s Aid
- Northumberland Child Development Centre
- Five Counties Children’s Centre
- Northumberland Hills Hospital
- Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre
- Champions for Youth Mentoring Program
- Local family doctors
I’ve worked with each of these agencies and utilized every support available to help kids and they are all amazing.
Schools have access to resources I fantasized about at the beginning of my career. The new Ministry document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health is fabulous. The much talked-about Health and Physical Education curriculum integrates mental health concepts into all content areas of the Healthy Living strand. Edugains has expanded its resources to include Mental Health resources for teachers. Our board offers staff access to training in Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. From CAMH to TAMI to Stomping Out Stigma student groups, we have hit a much needed tipping point for gaining support in schools.
But despite all the agencies, expert support, and caring parents, kids are still in distress and there is sometimes a feeling of helplessness in schools when trying to support students who struggle with mental health issues.
My Big Question
We all want the same thing: healthy whole-hearted children and youth.
I wonder if we’re making an impact. I wonder if we’re missing something. I wonder if there is more we can do. I wonder if we’re trying to do too much too fast. I wonder if we are being intentional enough about the way we are working alone and together. I wonder why sometimes even when a student has access to every support, s/he still suffers every day. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep me up at night.
Is it that more students are struggling or that we’re getting better at noticing? According to an in-depth CBC feature anxiety disorders affect six percent of children and youth. Twenty-two percent of children will be affected by anxiety in their lifetime. The buzz in school staff rooms and on social media is that it feels like more students struggle with anxiety now than in the past and the cases seem much more complex. So it might be both: more students are struggling and more educators are noticing just how complex mental health issues can be.
So my big question is how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?
Autonomy AND Collaboration?
This is too big a problem to solve alone. Supporting student well-being is a job for the whole village.
What is my role? I am one person in the village with a specific skill set and knowledge base. We need to better understand the roles of each individual in our village and be clear about what collaboration can look like.
A couple years ago at a high school we tried looking at this with our Student Success Team. On our team were vice principals, guidance counsellors, special education teachers, coop teachers, attendance counsellor, school board counsellor, consultant, and a student success teacher. We met weekly to discuss students who were struggling with academic and socio-emotional issues. Classroom teachers referred names to our team, we collected information, looked for trends, brainstormed supports, and followed-up with the student who needed support. I understood my role as a vice principal but I wanted to know more about the other roles. I wondered if there was overlap or gaps in service.
We created a google-doc and sat around the conference table with our laptops. The headings were something like:
- Name: Jessica
- Role: VP
- Goal: what is the purpose of your job?
- Meetings: what information do you require at a Student Success Meeting to do your job?
- Strategies: what strategies do you use to support students?
- Students: which students do you serve?
- Successes: what works well?
- Challenges: what is most challenging?
We went round-robin and filled in the chart with as much detail as possible. Then I synthesized the trends and patterns into this summary document so we could make decisions about next steps: Reflecting on Student Success Meetings.
This thinking was a good start for our team in being more intentional. Where we fell short was on taking the time to really develop a solid plan from here. We had some great ideas and implemented some changes, but we didn’t have metrics. We needed to return to these questions and better monitor our work along the way. We needed to measure what impact our changes made. The second year would have been crucial in consolidating this thinking/learning and maybe the team continued to refine their collective work but I moved to another school.
Collective Impact as a Possible Solution
If supporting students with mental health issues in schools is something I can’t do on my own, then how will we work together? How will we ensure efficient service delivery? How can we prevent students from falling through gaps in service?
We rely on the strength of home, school, and community partnerships. We rely on the expertise of others–I think that can be the scary part for us as educators. We like to be in control and to support students well we have to acknowledge our limits in schools and trust our community partners. We have to learn what success looks like and even though our hearts cry out that it looks like happiness for all, that may not be realistic. We live in a complex world with complex problems.
The first step is to develop a clear vision and ensure a common understanding. We need to put all our questions out there even if they fly back at us like boomerangs without answers.
Ontario has a comprehensive strategy called Open Minds, Healthy Minds that includes building resilience through schools. Our board has an amazing leadership team supporting schools. I am blessed to work with a dedicated school staff. This collective work has already started and I feel confident that we will all get better at supporting students in time. We need to persevere.
In my humble opinion here are some other things I think we need to start doing together:
- Teach parents how to advocate for accommodations and supports for student mental health issues the way parents have learned to advocate for special education needs. We need to help parents navigate the systems. I want to learn more about what parents need.
- Prioritize meetings with school teams, board teams, community teams, provincial teams, national teams, and/or global teams to strategize how to work together with more intention, to learn from each other, and to check for gaps or overlaps in services. (Perhaps we need collective impact consultants like my cousin to bring teams together. An outside facilitator can help us stretch our thinking, build trusting relationships, and bring more purpose to our work).
- Communicate better what everyone is doing to support mental health issues in children and youth…and in a simple, efficient way. (Some days I feel I don’t have enough information and others I’m on information overload).
- Leverage technology to build online learning communities that include stakeholders learning together and problem-solving from various perspectives. I know these must exist but the people I know don’t know where they are. We need to know. I would love a safe, confidential forum to discuss student well-being with other school leaders and experts as need arises.
- Plan for how to support students in moments of crisis at school and to support students with ongoing mental health issues. (I am learning how to support students in moments of crisis, but I am unclear of my role as an educator when a student demonstrates a mental health issue over time–from months to years.)
- Learn how to better cope or where to go next when nothing changes when interventions are utilized. How do we know when we’ve done enough? As one doctor told me, mental health issues can be fatal. I struggle with accepting that. I struggle with knowing what to do when a student is receiving treatment but we are not seeing changes at school and years pass–this is why we sometimes feel helpless. We want our support to lead to change and sometimes it doesn’t.
I’m optimistic that in my lifetime we will continue to see more supports for children and youth. I’m optimistic that educators will feel more confident in the role they can play in supporting student well-being. I’m optimistic that if we are more intentional within our schools and communities good things will come. We will reach another tipping point.
Questions are good. Let’s start there. And my question remains: how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?
The answer lies in our collective commitment to action. Commitment is a promise to do or to give something. Are you committed or just interested? We need people who are going “to do or to give” sitting at the table. What are you willing and able to do or to give? We each have a role in this village.